It all started with a single application email after coincidentally stumbling on a scholarship ad online. Landing in the UK at almost sub-zero temperatures I didn’t know what was ahead of me. I had successfully won a scholarship for a Research Masters (MRes) degree co-funded by CABI and Royal Holloway University of London, UK (RHUL). After going through all the bureaucracies involved in the getting a student visa to the UK with the strict deadlines, I knew pretty well that, whatever was ahead of me was not going to be a walk in the park.
Mikania (Mikania micrantha) is a tropical vine which is native to the Americas. Often referred to as the ‘Mile-a-Minute Weed,’ mikania grows rapidly in areas of high rainfall and has become highly invasive in parts of Asia and the Pacific. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, invasive species are defined as alien species that threaten native ecosystems, habitats or species and in Nepal, mikania and other invasive plants such as chromolaena (Chromolaena odorata) are becoming increasingly problematic within the Chitwan National Park (CNP). There, the plants are having a serious negative impact on native grasses, shrubs and the one-horned rhinoceros, and by implication, deer and tiger populations. They are also affecting the local people who reside in the buffer zones and rely on the park for fodder and other materials.
In a specific study on mikania, scientists from the National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal with support from CABI and the Zoological Society of London have found a significant negative relationship between high mikania coverage and the population of rhinos. This is because the mikania vine smothers the fodder plants that the rhinos feed on. This could also be influencing their movement to other areas of the park where they feed on resources and crops important to local people. This in turn may exacerbate conflict between the residents of the buffer zones and the wildlife in the area.
Deer and Tigers
The reduction in fodder plants is likely also to cause a mirrored decrease in the number of deer in the park. Deer feed on similar plants to the rhinos and the impact of mikania on native vegetation is therefore likely to affect their feeding behaviour in a comparable manner. As a result a decrease in deer numbers is likely to have a negative impact on tiger populations, with tiger numbers being directly related to the populations of their prey.
The residents of the buffer zones surrounding the CNP are known to rely on the core area of the park for resources such as fodder, which they use to feed their livestock. These residents recognise that fodder availability within the park has decreased and report that collecting materials now takes three times as long as it has in previous years to gather the same amount of fodder. Reduced fodder has been attributed to flooding of the park and the spread of invasive plant species. In particular, a high proportion of local residents report that mikania has a significant negative impact on the fodder growing in the park.
Sustainable control of mikania weed
CABI piloted using a rust fungus (Puccinia spegazzinii) as a classical biological control agent for mikania weed in India. This highly host specific and damaging pathogen has now been released in Papua New Guinea and Taiwan, where it is having a significant impact on the growth of the weed. The rust has recently been released on a number of other Pacific Islands, and could be considered for release in Nepal.
CABI has recently published a comprehensive review and update of its ISC datasheet on the globally important pathogen Puccinia psidii, commonly known as myrtle rust or guava rust. This problematic fungus is of worldwide importance and is capable of infecting a wide range of hosts. To date it has over 440 host species; affecting many plants in the Myrtaceae family, including threatened and endangered species (see IUCN Red List of Threatened Species). Severe impacts have been recorded in amenity plantings, commercial plantations and the native environment.
Once established in a new country myrtle rust can spread quickly and this has been the case in many countries including Jamaica, Hawaii, Australia and New Caledonia. Its successful global and local dispersal through urediniospores and human-aided movement of diseased plants, combined with its massive host range make myrtle rust an effective and devastating invasive. It was first identified as an invasive pathogen in the 1930s when it caused extensive damage to allspice (Pimenta dioica) plantations in Jamaica.
Discussions of myrtle rust impacts and a variety of other forestry related issues are currently underway at the 24th IUFRO World Congress, which is being held from the 5th-11th October 2014 in Salt Lake City, USA.
IUFRO is the International Union of Forest Research Organizations – the world’s forest network. The organisation promotes global cooperation on forest-related research and is composed of over 15,000 scientists from 650 member organizations in more than 100 countries.
The Congress is the largest forest research conference worldwide and is held every 5 years. It brings together delegates from varying forestry backgrounds and this year over 3500 scientists, researchers, graduates, decision makers, policy makers and land managers are expected to attend the event, which is focused on “Sustaining Forests, Sustaining People: the Role of Research”. Over the course of the week a number of plenary, sub-plenary, technical and poster sessions will cover themes, such as:
Under the theme of Forest Health in a Changing World, a session dedicated to emerging invasive forest pathogens will see notable speakers discuss the impacts of myrtle rust in the southern hemisphere, including its effects on diversity in both Australia and Hawaii (see p103-104 of the Scientific Program). This session will also focus on ash dieback and the invasive pathogen Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus, which causes the disease in ash trees. This pathogen has recently been causing severe impacts across Europe.